N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
(Rom. 3:26 ESV) 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Rom. 3:26 NET) 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
(Rom. 3:25 NRSV) it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Rom. 3:26 NET/JFG) 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness [loving covenant faithfulness] in the present time, so that he would be just [covenant faithful] and the justifier [one who declares covenant faithful and so a part of the covenant faithful community] of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
The same verse translated four ways, the ESV, the NET Bible, the NRSV, and my own annotated version. Let’s see what NT Wright has to say about this verse. And while Wright mentions this verse several times in his new book, it’s not the focus of his analysis. Which is surprising because in the Romans Road approach to atonement, this is the central verse for many commentators.
In the Romans Road theory of atonement, it’s explained that the challenge is for God to both be “just” and to “justify” (save) sinners with faith in Jesus. Saving people who sin and so who deserve damnation is not just. And so the problem is solved by Jesus taking their punishment for them.
However, Wright follows the NRSV and translates “just” as “righteous” — meaning covenant faithful. The NET Bible translator notes give “righteous” as an alternative reading. Well, up to this point, the same root has been translated “righteous,” and so we shouldn’t change meanings here unless we are forced to by the context.
Paul is not wrestling with how God can be just and forgive those with faith. After all, God has been forgiving those with faith/faithfulness/trust at least since Abraham. Rather, the issue is how God can be true to his covenant and save Gentiles who are not under covenant — and the answer is that they are saved by faith/faithfulness/trust in Jesus, just as the Jews are, because of Jesus’ faithfulness to the covenant.
In his commentary, Wright explains,
For Paul, we must not tire of repeating, God’s covenant faithfulness did not mean a reaffirmation of a supposed “favored nation clause”; nor did it mean that salvation-history proceeded in a smooth developmental line. Rather, it meant that God was fulfilling the promise to Abraham that he would have a faithful family composed of Jews and Gentiles alike. We are right, then, to see these verses as expressing the heart of that which Paul began to say in 3:21.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 472.
First, Paul adds “in the present time”; this is cognate with the “but now” at the start of the paragraph and emphasizes both that the past problem has reached a present conclusion and that the future verdict has been brought forward into the present time. One does not now have to wait for a future judgment to see the covenant people of God manifested (nor, as Paul will stress in vv. 27–30, can one see this through works of Torah). They are revealed in the present time by God’s action in Christ.
This means that God is now seen to be “just, and the justifier.” God, as both the covenant God and the “righteous judge” of the lawcourt metaphor, displays “righteousness,” not simply through dealing with sins as they deserved, but also, in his summing up of the case, through finding in favor of this category of people.
We must remind ourselves again that this declaration, this decision of the judge, is what constitutes these people as “righteous.” The word is primarily forensic/covenantal and only secondarily (what we would call) “ethical.” God’s justifying activity is the declaration that this people are “in the right,” in other words, announcing the verdict in their favor.
Calling them “righteous,” as one must on this basis, should not be misunderstood to mean that God has after all recognized that they possess ethical characteristics that have commended themselves, caused their sins to be overlooked, and persuaded the judge that they deserved a favorable verdict. To say that they are “righteous” means that the judge has found in their favor; or, translating back into covenantal categories, that the covenant God has declared them to be the covenant people.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 473.
In other words, once we get our definitions right, the old conundrum of how to be “just” and yet forgive goes away. It’s an interesting philosophical question but not the question Paul is addressing. And who says that a just God can’t forgive someone who comes to him in faith and penitence and still be just? The traditional argument makes God into a rigid formalist — a legalist God who cannot forgive out of his innate character of love and grace. God requires blood to forgive (as though God were subject to a law of blood higher even than himself). And it’s just not what the Bible says.
In fact, I remember a class taught at Lipscomb by Dr. Harvey Floyd (a spiritual hero of mine) following a substitute teacher. The substitute teacher — something of a legalist — said there’s universal law that forgiveness requires blood. Therefore, Jesus had to die on the cross to provide the blood needed for atonement.
The next day, somewhat upset, Dr. Floyd explained that there is no such law binding on God. God is GOD for crying out loud! God makes the rules, and he is only limited by his own character.
(Heb. 9:22 ESV) 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
This quotation is badly taken out of context when we skip the “under the law [Torah]” part. But in 1974, we read “law” as meaning “what is inherently right and wrong” not “Torah.” After all, the Jule Miller filmstrips plainly taught that the Law of Moses had been repealed.